Memetics, Schematics, and Cultural Genetics

Recently I came across a reference to memetics, which I had heard of and frankly dismissed as a conflation of the biological and cultural, similar to UG, in a way that ignores the cognitive processes of culture. Now, though, I’m thinking that as so many things go by different names across the disciplines, that a “meme,” even in a sense as its alternate meaning of “Internet fad,” is not too different from a schema, nor too different from a tradition. One is a symbol, or a symbolic action, one is a neural network, and one is a repeated action. I’m sure there are other concepts that describe a similar phenomenon of human nature, but for the sake of having the time-honored triad I’d like to view these three ideas as a Holy Trinity of culturemaking.

As compiled here:

Biological Definition (from Dawkins): A meme is the basic unit of cultural transmission, or imitation.

Psychological Definition (from Henry Plotkin): A meme is the unit of cultural heredity analogous to the gene. It’s the internal representation of knowledge.

Cognitive Definition (from Daniel Dennet): A meme is an idea, the kind of complex idea that forms itself into a distinct, memorable unit. It is spread by vehicles that are physical manifestations of the meme.

“A meme is a unit of information in a mind whose existence influences events such that more copies of itself get created in other minds. [snip] It’s one way of looking at things. It’s looking at ideas – memes – as distinct entities in competition for a share of your mind and a share of everyone else’s. When those ideas are harmful… understanding this model can show you how to combat the infection.” (quoted from Richard Brodie’s Virus of the Mind: The New Science of the Meme)

What is a schema, then? A schema, as I learned it, is a set of neural connections that are triggered by physical, social, and internal stimuli and not only inform behavior and perception, but are shaped by internalized ideals and expectations experienced in a sociocultural context. Schema theory is thematically related to the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis and is also called cultural modelling theory to the cultural, especially interactionist, anthropologists.

And what is a tradition? A tradition is more than something people do multiple times. It goes beyond rituals and events, too, and encompasses a society’s basic ontology and epistemology, sociopsychological benchmarks, and patterns of movement. A tradition is a repeated social action or event within a specific cultural context that reflects the society’s psychological, economic, and political needs.

All together, a meme, Internet or otherwise, is a cultural product that evokes a schema, and may become or provide context for a tradition.